Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 12, 2007

Another Egregious Example of Technology in the Classroom Run Amuck

If you have read any of my earlier blogs on technology and higher education you know that I am critical of the hype that is pushing technology into every nook and cranny of higher education. This hype is, in my judgment, responsible for the lavish spending on technology that is returning only negligible improvements in the quality of our education. The pace at which universities are uncritically adopting technology has seemingly increased dramatically in the last decade. Unfortunately, the university seems as incapable of thinking critically and clearly about the appropriate role of technology as does the broader society.

Just today a friend alerted me to yet another egregious example of the mindless use of expensive technology in the classroom. My friend teaches at a university with a medical school. Students in the medical school are required to buy a hand-held wireless device for their classes. One of the uses is for taking tests. As he explains it, students were given a paper test in a classroom. But rather than using a pencil to fill out an objective test form, they logon to their class website and enter their answers electronically via their device. He had just learned from a colleague that students had figured out how to beat the system quite easily. They were given x amount of time to take the test in the classroom and enter their answers. However, if they finished the test early, they could leave. Some took the test with them out into the hall or remembered the questions, checked their books for the correct answers, and substituted the correct answers on their wireless devices before the time limit expired, all from the sanctuary of the hallway. Apparently, there was no professor or proctor present in the classroom or hall to monitor these students. When the professor was told that some students were cheating, she ‘professed’ to be unable to do anything to prevent them. One can only imagine what short-cuts these students will devise when faced with a life-and-death crisis in the emergency room.

Apart from the cheating and the irresponsible conduct of the professor, this appears to be another case where an immensely expensive technology has replaced the simple and inexpensive procedure of marking an objective scorecard with pencil. Edward Tenner refers to this as the inevitable recomplicating effect of much of our electronic technology. Why does a university have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to perform what has always been done very efficiently, inexpensively, and securely? When universities pour this kind of money into this kind of technology, why does it surprise anyone that tuition is rising faster than the rate of inflation at universities all across the nation. What is driving this? Has the university’s IT department done its due diligence in checking the grandiose claims made by the vendors of these expensive systems? Has it counted the true cost of these systems? And where are the provosts and the deans? What philosophy of education underlies and promotes this mindless grasping at novelty?

Yes, it may be ‘cool’ to use a hand-held device to automatically score and grade tests, but for what larger academic Good? What have those cheating students actually ‘learned’ by taking exams with these devices? Now that the professor is free from the drudgery of proctoring and grading exams, what Greater Academic Good is she pursuing? There are some technologies that actually make us dumber; this seems to be yet another one of them.

Jacques Ellul is tapping us on the shoulder from beyond the grave to remind us that this is exactly the direction that society in the grip of La Technique is moving.



  1. Kenn, your thoughts on the all-too-easy readiness to allow technologies into our lives and classrooms sparked the following memory in me.

    A few years back while I was studying at Regent College in Vancouver, BC I was tutoring high school students in Mathematics. One particular girl had just moved to Canada and she had to catch up on some work. So we met twice a week for tutoring at first. After the first couple times we met I began to realize that she was making simple arithmetic mistakes. As a freshman in high school she did not know her times tables. She said, “Well I used to know them in 5th grade.” I asked the obvious question: “So what happened?” She held up her calculator.

    The prophetic words of Wendell Berry and Neil Postman rang out. We were given mysterious, wonderful, complex and beautiful abilities. When we defer these abilities to the machine those ‘muscles’ atrophy, lose memory, and decay.

    More recently I’ve pondered what may happen with the proliferation of GPS systems in cars. Picture this:

    A couple is on vacation and their GPS system breaks down. Thankfully they were just watching an old movie on their cell phone that showed someone pulling into a gas station to ask for directions. There was a station across the street. They walked up to the counter and asked the owner if he could beam over a map onto their blackberry.

    ‘Excuse me? What is it your looking for?’

    “Well, we are trying to get to Los Angeles?”

    The owner pulls out a paper map and begins to point the way, describing landmarks to look for on the way. “Oh, and there’s a great pie shop right at this junction. And don’t stop at the service station down the road from there. He dilutes his gas.”

    The owner looks up at the couple who are thouroughly confused. He describes the whole route again to them, but they still look lost. “Do you want to write it down?” He hands them a pen and paper. But they now seem even more distraught.

    “Here. Just take my map.”

    “I used to know how to read maps back in 5th grade.”

    “Well what happened?”

    He holds up his broken blackberry.

    “Can you call us a taxi??”

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